Janis times two is one terrific theater experience

Posted on February 20th, 2008

2/20/2008 12:00AM CST
The Dallas Morning News
Janis times two is one terrific theater experience
by Lawson Taitte
Love, Janis gives you two Janis Joplins for the price of one. Both terrific.
Randal Myler (Hank Williams: Lost Highway) conceived, adapted and directed the show, which the Dallas Summer Musicals’ Broadway Contemporary Series brought to the Majestic Theatre Tuesday for a week’s run. Inspired by the book of the same name by Janis’ sister Laura, it alternates spoken excerpts from the singer’s letters to her family and from interviews with dynamic renditions of the songs that made her famous.
Joplin’s shooting-star career in the 1960s, as her strong cadre of fans well knows, took her from Texas to San Francisco as the acid-rock scene in the California city was jelling. Within a few months of her arrival, she was a nationally known recording star. Love, Janis tells us the story in her own witty, vulnerable, frequently apologetic words.
Marisa Ryan speaks them as if she were the tragically short-lived singer reborn. As the play develops, we worry for this psychologically fragile waif. But we aren’t asked to pity her. Rather, we participate in her exultation as she tells her folks how Paul McCartney showed up at one of her concerts, or as she tells an interviewer that money has always been what she had a little of in her pocket – “So what’s that stuff in the bank?”
It’s a bit of a shock when the singing Janis joins the speaking one in some of the scenes – but the device helps the piece from seeming too schematic in its back-and forth patterns. Mary Bridget Davies, who performed the singing role on Tuesday, alternates with Katrina Chester. I can’t vouch for Ms. Chester, but Ms. Davies nails Joplin’s idiosyncratic style and physical mannerisms. The illusion is all the more remarkable because Joplin and Ms. Chester are such different physical types.
Back in the day, I never fully gave into that unique Joplin sound, based on classic blues. I succumbed completely to Ms. Davies, perhaps because there’s more honey in her tone, less of Joplin’s anger and aggression. Ms. Davies does screech and wail passionately, though – in the precise way that the show’s heroine could sound like an electric guitar played with lots of rough feedback.
It’s both a bad thing and a good thing that Love, Janis is all in the singer’s own words. The limitation is that the show can’t really have a controlling theme or give us an interpretation of just why the star was so tortured and self-destructive. The benefit is that we don’t feel we’re being manipulated or that the subject is being betrayed. We like Janis Joplin a lot more – maybe even give her the love she so strongly missed – after seeing Love, Janis.
It’s terribly sad that she’s not around to see it herself.
•Through Sunday at the Majestic Theatre, 1925 Elm St. Runs 145 mins. $15 to $67. 214-631-2787, www.ticketmaster.com.
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